The Governor-elect, Pastor Umo Eno, promises to do everything possible for the actualisation of Ibom Deep Seaport, the biggest project capable of completely changing the economic fortunes of Akwa Ibom State for good

By Inemesit Ina

In Akwa Ibom State today, the main occupations are civil service, teaching, subsistent farming and fishing, petty trading, hawking and, bizarrely, politics.

The outgoing administration of Governor Udom Emmanuel has sought to turn things around in the last eight years with an industrialisation drive akin to what was witnessed in the old Cross River State during the administration of Governor Clement Isong. Various industries have sprung up in ONNA, Mkpat Enin, Abak, Oruk Anam, Ini, Itu and Uyo. But industrialisation in the state is still work in progress and at infancy.

What will indubitably ignite the industrial revolution, leap Akwa Ibom into the industrial age and bring the much-needed employment and prosperity is the Ibom Deep Seaport conceived over 20 years ago. It potentially has spill-over effects on virtually every sector in the state. Obviously conscious of this fact, the Udom Administration has kick started the process of establishment of an industrial city around the seaport. The Nigerian National Petroleum Company (NNPC) has keyed into the move with its proposed Ibom Solution Hub (a logistics’ centre), in collaboration with the State Government, in the seaport area.

The seaport project has been delayed for long because of the initial Federal Government’s reluctance to give approval and support, the arduous search for investors by the State Government and the intractable controversy over the project’s location and even name.

The incoming Governor, Pastor Umo Eno, seems determined to pull out all the stops to realise the project. “We will do everything possible,” he pledged during his campaign rally in Oron Local Government Area (LGA) on February 20, 2023.

Eno’s Promise

During his campaign activities in the five LGAs of Oro Nation, Akwa Ibom’s third biggest ethnic group, Eno made the seaport his focal point.

Twice, in less than a week interval, in Mbo, where the project is largely located, the would-be Governor dwelt on the seaport.

The first instance was his campaign rally in Mbo on January 11, 2023. He promised: “Now, I want to talk about something that is in the mind, in the blood of every Oro person, and that is the deep seaport. I want to assure you that, by the Grace of God, that project will see the light of day. We will work very hard with investors.”

Five days later (January 16, 2023), during the commissioning ceremony of the Afi-Uko Nteghe Bridge, not far from the project’s location, Eno spoke fervently, addressing the Governor: “Your Excellency, as I sat there looking at the bridge and looking at the things you’ve done, I cannot but see before me the array of opportunities you have opened for Akwa Ibomites. I see the solution hub. I see the Ibom Industrial City. I see the Ibom Deep Seaport. And so, this bridge is not just the bridge to link one community to the other. It is the bridge to link Akwa Ibom State to the industrial revolution. And that is what you have done. And I begin to imagine the kind of things that will begin to take place here following the blueprint and the plan that you have put in place for Akwa Ibom in the next couple of years.”

Then he defined his path of continuity: “And I begin to see the burden of leadership that is placed on my shoulders to ensure that we do the things that you have put in place, precept by precept, concept by concept, to open up the Ibom Industrial City, to open up the Ibom Solution Hub, to open up the Ibom Deep Seaport.”

Again, Eno repeated the promise of seaport on February 1, 2023 in Oron at each of his whistle-stop consultation visits to the three apex Oro organizations, the Council of Oro Traditional Rulers, the Oron Union and the Esu Nlap Oro.

Finally, during his campaign rally in Oron 19 days later, the then Gubernatorial Candidate of the ruling Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP) vowed: “I like to say very clearly that, by the Grace of God and by your support, we will pursue to a logical conclusion the deep seaport. We will pursue it and we will work with investors.”

The Project’s Trajectory

The deep seaport was conceived by the Victor Attah Administration over two decades ago. Its location in Ibaka is said to already have a natural depth of about 13 metres which distinguishes the port from most others in Nigeria which are shallower and need regular dredging.

The succeeding Godswill Akpabio Administration laid the foundation stone of the project in Ibaka in August 2013. In anticipation of the boom the would-be port was expected to bring, several well-known personalities from the rest of the state reportedly acquired land in Ibaka.

The present Administration in 2015 set up a Technical Committee for the Realization of Ibom Deep Seaport.

Since February 1, 2023, the Akwa Ibom State Ministry of Information and Strategy has posted online a 28-minute documentary on the seaport titled, “Update of Ibom Deep Seaport Project.” It features the two top managers of the project, namely Mrs. Mfon Ekong Usoro, the Chairman of the Technical Committee, and Dr. Bassey Okon, the State Commissioner for Special Duties and Ibom Deep Seaport, as well as Comrade Ini Ememobong, the Information Commissioner, among others.

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Excerpts: Fortunately, Akwa Ibom, with a shoreline of about 129 kilometres, is endowed with a deep seaport potential, considering the natural depth of its territorial waters along the Atlantic Ocean. Therefore, the conceptualization and continuous development of Ibom Deep Seaport, a Greenfield project by succeeding administrations, is a masterstroke that is set to change the socio-economic configuration of not just the local economy of Nigeria but also the entire West and Central Africa. Ibom Deep Seaport, expected to occupy 2,565 hectares, is an integral part of a proposed Ibom Industrial City, which will occupy a land mass of 14,517 hectares.

Ibom Deep Seaport, with designed capacity to accommodate vessels that can load over 13,000 containers in one voyage, is strategically conceptualized to provide the much-needed container handling and storage capacity, import capacity for petroleum products, capacity for vehicles, dedicated import capacity for food and agricultural products, dedicated export capacity for industrial output and natural resources, a supply base for regional oil and gas sector as well as provide a shipyard and dry dock for shipbuilding, vessel maintenance, and repairs. And, as a trans-shipment port, it will provide needed logistics for redistribution of cargo from mega vessels to seaports and river ports closest to consignees within the West and Central African regions.

The Udom Emmanuel Administration has taken the development of sea route to Akwa Ibom to an all-time high. His commitment to meaningful development of the Ibom Deep Seaport was underscored from the onset of his administration in 2015 when he constituted a Technical Committee to drive the implementation of the multi-billion-dollar project.

Through the committee, comprising patriotic and seasoned experts in relevant fields, the administration has moved the Ibom Deep Seaport dream from mere conceptualization and desktop feasibility study to an actual project.

Following the final approval by the Federal Executive Council for the Full Business Case of Ibom Deep Seaport to take off, the administration has doubled down its effort at ensuring that all hands are on deck towards actualizing the dream. As such, the government of Mr. Emmanuel has been up-to-date with counterpart funding and coordinating critical stakeholders, including investors and technical partners.

Although the recent COVID-19 pandemic that ravaged the world also slowed down the pace of work on the project, yet significant milestones have been achieved. Today, on-site feasibility study, including geo-technical and geo-physical studies, are being undertaken by Fundamental Integrated Site Appraisal Services (FISAS) and other technical experts.

Ibom Deep Seaport, certainly will not become operational within the remaining few months of the Udom Emmanuel Administration. However, when Nigerians, especially Akwa Ibom and her people begin to profit from the project, sometime in the future, significant credit will accrue to the administration for successfully midwifing the critical stage of development.

Already, the project is providing economic benefits to Akwa Ibom indigenes on many fronts. Apart from the fact that the Technical Committee on the project is peopled mostly by Akwa Ibomites, a number of the local and foreign technical partners have appreciable local content in their personnel mix.

That Akwa Ibom has the potential to become a major maritime powerhouse in Nigeria and beyond is not in doubt. When Ibom Deep Seaport comes on stream, it will conveniently serve areas such as Sao Tome and Principe, Equatorial Guinea, Cameroon, Angola, Gabon, Democratic Republic of Congo, Niger and Chad.

As successive administrations deliberately and systematically develop the smart seaport, a new gateway gradually opens up for the greater and sustainable prosperity of the state and the people.

Progress Report

What is the state of the project today?

“On site right now is FISAS who were engaged by us, the project partners, to undertake geo-physical and geo-technical studies,” Usoro says.

Okon corroborates: “Currently, the Ibom Deep Seaport is ongoing. We are doing site survey. The consultant, FISAS, is currently on site surveying. And we expect them to be done in a month’s time from now.”

But why another feasibility study after Attah’s own?

“There was a feasibility study but it was outdated,” Usoro explains. “It was also a desktop study. And that is not what you use in bringing in funds. In actually starting the construction of the seaport, there has to be a feasibility study that is comprehensive, that is not desktop, that is on site. That is the major work that we have done in 2022.”

Okon points out that the seaport is a twin with the industrial city and not a stand-alone: “The Ibom Deep Seaport is a twin project with Ibom Industrial City. You have the Ibom Deep Seaport and you have the Ibom Industrial City. So, we are on.

“For the Ibom Industrial City, this is also ongoing. For the Ibom Industrial City, we have been given approval by NEPZA (Nigerian Export Promotion Zones Authority). With that, we have met their requirements. The basic requirement is that we should mount signpost indicating or directing people to the location which we have done that. And also (we were required) to provide the site office. We have been able to do this. Part of the requirements was for us to provide a Portakabin, a temporary office, to provide signpost, to provide water reticulation for site activities. That has been achieved. We have also mounted solar lighting and panels for the place to make it lit in the night. That also takes care of the people working there so that they can be comfortable. So, this has been achieved at the moment. So, Ibom Industrial City is on course. The deep seaport is also on course.”

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Completion Date

When will the project be completed?

Usoro is not ready to put a date to it: “2023 is not feasible. And it’s not feasible for reasons that are explainable. Ordinarily, even if everything being equal, seaport project is not like constructing a house. It takes years from the conceptualization, the planning stage and then having to get investors, having to do the studies that need to be done. The project, as huge as ours, which is a very big deep seaport with not less than 10 terminals, is not something that just happens in two-three-four-five years and you get to deliver.”

Ememobong also believes it is too early to place a completion date on the seaport: “The delivery of a seaport is a continuous affair. It’s not stagnated. Yes, we can open a seaport for business. A port is evolving as a human being. So, to that extent, you can only determine the level of work by May 29, 2023. So, in the next five months, we are going to sit back and see the level of work done. But His Excellency is not interested in a political inauguration. He is interested in the strategic commencement of this facility and the sequential progress which is critical.”

He is convinced that history will be kind to the Governor on the seaport project: “There has been a lot of impediments on the road to Ibom Deep Seaport. But history will record the Udom Emmanuel Administration as having cleared all the impediments and set the seaport on the right track to run.”

Ememobong, however, admits that “there is much more needed to be done for the seaport to come alive.”

Okon, an engineer, goes technical: “You look at a project’s life cycle. There must be the beginning point and the ending point. So, the project has commenced. The physical activities have commenced. That actually gives hope more than what people have been propagating without seeing any physical activities. So, with this, we can say categorically that the project has taken off and that it is perfectly on course.”

Community Relations

Though Mbo is the only host community in Oro Nation, Oro leaders, including those from Mbo, have always viewed the seaport as a Pan-Oro project. As a result, they negotiate with government as an ethnic group, perhaps for strategic reasons. Negotiations with the outgoing administration stalled a couple of years ago essentially over the project’s location and name. Oro leaders implacably opposed the expansion of the project to Okposo in Ibeno by the administration, considering it as relocation. They were also against the change of name from Ibaka Deep Seaport, as christened by Attah, to Ibom Deep Seaport. At a point in the dispute, Oro leaders were accused of scaring away potential Chinese investors with a petition over the project’s name and location. They were similarly accused of petitioning the Federal Ministry of Transportation over the same issues.

Now, it appears the dust raised by the controversy has settled. Hear Okon, the commissioner: “Before the site survey, of course, you know there must be community engagement with the people of Mbo Local Government Area. We have concluded with the people of Mbo Local Government Area. We have met with the people of Mbo Local Government Area as a whole. We have met with the Paramount Ruler, the Clan Heads and the Village Heads within the path that the Ibom Deep Seaport project traverse through a group of villages. So, this has been achieved at the moment. And that paved way for the consultant, called FISAS, to go into site survey at the moment.”

Usoro says her committee places emphasis on local content as a way of carrying the community along: “Even before the construction of the port, we have insisted on the principle of local content. In the shipping world, I’m known as Madam Local Content because I drafted and worked with the National Assembly on the Cabotage Bill until it became law. So, we imported that principle into even our procurement process that there has to be in detail the local content aspect and we said, in the local content, we mean Nigerian-owned companies and even brought it down even that Nigerian-owned company must also have Akwa Ibom companies because I really do believe in getting the community involved in the project for some sustainable purpose. All of us in our committee believe in that. Even before the port is operational, right now, the studies that are being done, our people are benefiting. We insisted that the companies that will do the work, that will supervise on their behalf, have to be Nigerian and also from Akwa Ibom. Even though we did a competitive bidding process, we discovered that there were very good companies from Akwa Ibom.”

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Catchment Area

Within Nigeria, the seaport is certain to cater for people beyond Akwa Ibom. With the only fully functional seaports far away in Lagos, neighbouring states and far-flung places are certain to benefit from the one in Akwa Ibom. Big markets in Aba, Onitsha and Enugu as well as heavy industries in Nnewi, all in South-East Nigeria, which presently depend on Lagos seaports, are likely to be among the beneficiaries.

Usoro reveals the seaport’s immediate catchment area: “Our catchment area for the port is the whole of Eastern Nigeria and that is where we have the industries. That is where we have the big-time importers.”

Ememobong points out that the catchment area extends to neighbouring countries within the Gulf of Guinea: “The strategic location of Ibom Deep Seaport doesn’t just serve Nigeria. It serves the Gulf of Guinea.”

Ibaka, the “International” Town

Interestingly, Ibaka, with its present status as a fishing port, is already a busy “international town,” brimming with foreigners from neighbouring countries.

This writer captures the situation in Chapter Two (Mbo: Akwa Ibom’s Natural Wonder) of the book, Across Akwa Ibom’s Tourism, Oil and Gas Fields: A Travelogue, published in December 2020.

Excerpts from the sub-chapter, Ibom Deep Seaport: But the seaport is not to be created out of nothing. Unknown to some in the state, Ibaka is already a thriving fishing port. It has been so for long.

AbasiEyo points out that Ibaka is already the busiest place in Akwa Ibom State after Uyo, the State Capital: “Ibaka is the busiest place in Oro Nation in terms of business. Apart from Uyo, Ibaka should be the busiest place in Akwa Ibom State. Ibaka is busier than Oron Beach. All roads lead to Ibaka. Ibaka is a natural port though undeveloped. It beams with activities more than some seaports in Nigeria.”

As this writer stood on the Ibaka shoreline, watching the beautiful ambience of speedboats, with passengers, luggage and goods, arriving and departing while Immigration and health officials screened them; local fishermen in dug-out boats going for or returning from fishing; a flotilla of tens of fishing boats, flying flags of Nigeria and different neighbouring African countries, anchored at the harbour; various forms of trading at the beach market and a floating NNPC mega station, what came to one’s mind was the evergreen song by the American Rhythm and Blues’ legend, Dionne Warwick, titled, A World of My Dreams Enthralled by the sublime scenery, this writer was forced to day dream about how Ibaka would be when the seaport finally comes.

In another sub-chapter, Ghanaians Good with their Garri but Selfish with their Women: Lamentation of an Ibaka Trader, this writer further drives home the “international” status of Ibaka.

Excerpts: Ibaka, the third ward in Uda Community, is already swarmed with foreigners engaged in fishing business. There are hundreds of Cameroonians, Equatorial Guineans, Ghanaians and Togolese in Ibaka, a group of four recognized villages.

In addition to these foreigners, domiciled in Ibaka are many Akwa Ibom indigenes and other Nigerians, especially Igbo and Yoruba, plying their trade in the town which boasts of two bustling markets, the Beach Market and the Main Market. There is even a mosque for the Muslim residents, signposting religious diversity in the largely Christian town.

It appears that Ibaka indigenes, who are increasingly being outnumbered by non-indigenes, are good hosts. There is hardly any report of skirmishes between them and non-indigenes. Some of the foreigners have even married local women and built houses in Ibaka on land sold to them by the indigenes.

But not everyone is happy with the foreigners. One Ibaka trader (name withheld) picks offence with Ghanaians in particular. His grouse is that Ghanaians are good with their garri but selfish with their women.

His words: “The garri, the Ghanaians bring here, if you sip it, you will like it. It is good. Our only problem with the Ghanaians is their rule that their girls must not marry or befriend Ibaka men. But they marry Ibaka, Oron and Ibibio girls. Once a Ghanaian girl is known to have a relationship with any man outside their community, her people immediately send her back to Ghana.”

Next – The second part of this feature on the Ibom Deep Seaport will focus on the following: A Writer’s Suggestions, The Need for Synergy between Federal and State Officials from Akwa Ibom on the Seaport Project and Past Examples of Similar Synergy that brought Development to the State